Most people assume addiction is a one-person problem, and that it’s the addict’s sole responsibility to get clean and sober. While it’s true every addict has an individual journey, the roots of addiction rarely begin with one addict. Many addicts have experienced intergenerational trauma that heavily influences their substance abuse and recovery process.
Many people seeking help don’t know their addiction or substance abuse is generational. Additionally, they may have blocked out traumatic events that contributed to their addiction. In such cases, treatment is often harder and relapse is more likely.
If you have struggled with addiction or are struggling now, consider whether intergenerational trauma or usage has played a role.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
As the name implies, intergenerational trauma occurs when trauma is transferred from one generation of survivors to the next, even though the second generation did not survive the trauma itself.
Intergenerational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma is often passed from parents to children. Symptoms are often tied to the parents’ child-rearing, since their trauma symptoms influence how they raise their children. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes trauma is transferred epigenetically, meaning the trauma’s genetic effects are passed on even if they aren’t encoded in an individual’s DNA.
The transfer is often traced to complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a prolonged and interpersonal form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with complex PTSD (C-PTSD) have often experienced prolonged gaslighting, false accusations or prolonged psychological manipulation. Sufferers often have been in situations where there was no physical or mental escape route.
Examples of people with C-PTSD include those who have watched a loved one die in violent circumstances, enslaved people, Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, survivors of extreme poverty or sexual abuse survivors.
Both survivors and immediate witnesses can sustain C-PTSD and develop intergenerational trauma.
Can Trauma Be Carried Across Generations?
Some people are understandably skeptical of transgenerational trauma, wondering if our genes are truly complex enough to transfer another person’s feelings about an experience. However, it is because the trauma was so unthinkable that transference is possible.
In other words, strong emotions connected to trauma can’t help but get transferred to the next generation because it’s a part of survivors’ lives. Even if the second generation doesn’t connect to the trauma right away, the traumatic event is always present in some form.
A fairly recent example occurred the holiday season after 9/11. A man working as a sidewalk Santa told Psychology Today about his experience: “Parents would not let the hands of their children go,” he said. This sent the children a strong message: Santa was to be feared.
Of course, this isn’t at all what their parents meant. They were afraid of letting their children go because of 9/11 trauma, not a sidewalk Santa. However, the children made an unintentional connection between Santa Claus and fear. The parents unconsciously let the fear and anxiety of 9/11 trickle down to their children with a squeeze of the hand and a subliminal message: “Don’t let go of my hand; someone or something fearful is here.”
Trauma doesn’t have to be transferred directly from parent to child to be transgenerational, either. Sometimes entire groups transfer trauma among each other and to second or third generations. For example, in Germany during World War I, an entire generation suffered stunted growth and other physical symptoms because of malnutrition. During that time, an orange segmented among an entire family was a luxury.
Even after World War I ended, segmenting, saving and worrying about food continued. In fact, the Nazis used these conditions as a jumping-off point. They promised Germans that malnutrition and starvation were things of the past.
Where Addiction And Substance Abuse Fit In
What does any of this have to do with addiction and substance abuse? The short answer is everything. Trauma of any kind forces us to do things we would never do under normal circumstances. We will use any remedy to cope with the pain, including drugs and alcohol, even if we aren’t sure exactly where the pain originates.
Often, intergenerational trauma occurs because the survivors and immediate witnesses have not effectively processed their grief. If they are unable to do that, the second and third generations become trauma “carriers.” Often, one person is “chosen” to carry and deal with the trauma. If left to do this alone, that person can easily turn to addiction and substance abuse.
If one person is not chosen to be a “carrier,” entire families and groups may become “infected” with the trauma and experience substance abuse or addiction. This is often why we see entire families dealing with alcoholism or drug use. Great-grandparents or the grandparents were survivors of, or immediate witnesses to, trauma, and they pass this on.
The great-grandparents or grandparents used drugs or alcohol to cope with their trauma. Their children then learned that substance abuse was a viable option for dealing with pain. Thus, they passed it on to third and fourth generations.
Coping With Transgenerational Trauma Effectively
It is crucial to deal with transgenerational trauma constructively. If you are a trauma survivor or immediate witness, or if you’re otherwise dealing with C-PTSD, there is almost no way to avoid transferring it to your children. However, you can lessen its effects with the following:
- Communicate: Do not send a conscious or unconscious message that your family must be the only trauma carriers. Talk about what happened and how you felt, or feel, today. Stress that it is everyone’s responsibility to help each other with their feelings.
- Seek Counseling: A qualified counselor helps you analyze your behavior and thought patterns. He or she can determine if you’re doing or saying certain things based on trauma, if your dreams carry evidence of intergenerational trauma, or if you’re dealing with complex grief.
- Seek Help for Addiction: Trauma plays a huge role in many addiction cases, and we at Maryland Recovery take it seriously. Contact us for a specific consultation. Knowing that you carry transgenerational trauma helps us know what kind of treatment you need.
If you or a loved one is suffering from intergenerational trauma, please contact us today. Click on button below to learn about how we treat trauma alongside addiction.
Dr. Bhalavat is Board Certified in General Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, and provides inpatient evaluation and consultation services at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital, Maryland Recovery Partners, and Citizens Care & Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Bhalavat’s background includes treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and dementia.